*Disclaimer: this account includes descriptions of injuries and police violence, which may be distressing for some readers.
It has been almost four years since my very first humanitarian medical expedition to Lesvos, and the haunting images I faced there will not lay to rest. It feels like it could have been yesterday: the chaotic din of human murmurings, interspersed by the barks of the gargantuan Greek riot police hiding behind their plastic shields.
On the second night of my medical expedition, a man keeled over in a state of half-consciousness just in front of the barbed wire gates of the prison-like Moria Camp. He was clearly in the throes of an acute heart attack and could quite conceivably die in a matter of moments, right there in front of me and the thousand or so spectators who had gathered from the seemingly interminable registration queue. For a few moments the only awareness I had was of my own heartbeat, almost audible in the pin-drop silence that we were suddenly overcome by on that warm Greek autumn night.
There was no time to lose. I mentally prepared myself to perform emergency CPR. Sod the BLS trainers - why do they keep changing the vital tune that we are supposed to sing in our heads to ensure we had the right pace and rhythm? Was it ‘Nellie the Elephant’ or ‘Staying Alive’? One refugee saw my predicament. He turned out to be a Syrian dentist and with a quick sigh of relief, I graciously accepted his offer to take the ‘head end’. I had nothing in my bag at the time to deal with such an emergency - no bag and mask or even a face shield, no life saving aspirin nor adrenaline injections and definitely no Defibrillator. It was the middle of the night. We were all drenched in a cold sweat, and the muggy air was permeated by the distinct odour of anxious travellers who had been unable to wash properly for several days. A space was cleared and I took to the floor. My audience: thousands of exhausted refugees and a handful of policemen, looking on with glazed-over eyes. At its peak, Moria camp held over one hundred thousand people, bursting through the barbed wire fences. The poor man’s family watched, distraught, as he died in front of us. The contradiction of escaping a brutal war and dying here from stress and exhaustion in a free country with insufficient facilities is something, to this day, I struggle to comprehend.
There were many cases on that October trip that have particularly stayed with me. There was the young teenage boy, no more than sixteen, with his hands torn to shreds by the barbed wire fences that snaked in the dark, waiting for an unexpected captive. The skin on his palms bulged with pink fleshy pulp from within. I had no suture kit but I did find an ice pack (chilled from the hotel mini fridge, but not frozen) for him to hold onto for a few minutes. This was an exercise to give him comfort as well as buy me a few moments to consider what I could do next. I needed to improvise. I needed glue or sutures. Finally settling for steri-strips, his wounds were carefully dressed and bandaged for him to travel onward.
All the while, this boy remained strikingly silent, not the tiniest wince to express the extreme pain he must have been in. I could not help but wonder what horrors his youthful eyes had seen before now that made his present anguish pale into insignificance. Nothing quite prepares you for the silence - deep and deafening in itself - hidden pain from the innocent eyes of children who have seen far more than they ever should have seen. We could not bear to imagine this for our children - how could it happen here? Children born pure, their lives now tainted. Children who once laughed and cried, now silent.
And yet, not all are able to hold in their pain. I remember a fourteen year old girl, screaming in pain, carried in by her tearful older brother as she was unable to walk. She had just been trampled on by the riot police as they pushed against a crowd of people (undoubtedly in a panic). She was at the front of the line, in a squatting position they were all forced to adopt when the police felt their superiority needed to be asserted. Moments later, she had been stamped on by the burliest looking officer, as witnessed by her own brother. I knew she was in trouble as I gently palpated her bruised limbs. Her left leg was fractured in three places and a photo her brother later sent me showed her leg in a full cast from the foot to the hip. As I gazed in horror at this image, I noted that she was unable to remain modestly covered as a body-shy teenage Syrian girl would have preferred to be.
To my deep admiration, the women of the camp, no matter how distraught or distressed, always managed to maintain a dress code of impeccable hijab and modest coverings, beautifully held by pins. For someone who struggles to keep pins in her own hijab without finding them painfully piercing one part of me or another, I was in awe of these women's dedication to keep to their practice and culture in such difficult times: despite it all they still managed to maintain their dignity. Until the war, Syria was a sophisticated society. I never had the chance to visit, but I sensed the sophistication in the people I watched pouring away from its fractured and bleeding boundaries. “Stylish women,” aptly summed up by a good friend and fellow traveller.
There were so many more people on my first trip to Lesvos whose stories have stayed with me. The man with gaping thigh and shin wounds, which I had to dress with clean sanitary towels as this was all I had, the silent children, the pregnant women, the people recently operated on and lying in various stages of post-operative inertia, the girl with thalassaemia, the diabetics, the epileptics and the elderly. All were surprisingly stoic and most likely just glad, in those moments, to still be alive.
Dr Siyana Mahroof-Shaffi travelled to Lesvos as a volunteer in October 2015 to assist with the medical needs of refugees in Camp Moria on the island of Lesvos. She noticed a serious dearth in medical NGOs on the ground, leaving people, who had fled their war-torn homelands, without access to vital medical care. Siyana decided that she couldn’t stand by while these desperate people fell through the cracks, and so she founded Kitrinos Healthcare, which is now serving thousands of people in multiple refugee camps across Greece.